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Patricia Gibbs

Rentals, rentals everywhere--but none you can afford. Honolulu has one of the most expensive and overcrowded housing markets in the U.S. Join the Crowd
Patricia Gibbs
Honolulu Weekly, Volume 7, Number 9, February 26-March 4, 1997.
Illustrations: Deb Aoki
Photo: Bud Spindt

Most renters in Hawaii can't afford a place of their own. Are you one of them?

Got a spare $33,040 a year lying around?

No? How about $2,753 a month, $688 a week or $17.20 an hour?

For many of you--in fact, for 76,415 families in Hawaii--this is completely out of reach. Yet these wages are what it takes to afford rent for a mid-priced one-bedroom apartment unit in Hawaii.

Now...according to 1990 census data for Hawaii, 45.6 percent of you out there are renters--that's 162,585 households in the state. And of those, 47 percent cannot afford a one-bedroom rental. That's 76,415 households that are priced out of the market for an affordable one-bedroom unit.

To make matters worse, 53 percent of you--86,171 households--cannot afford a two-bedroom rental. Bigger homes? Forget it.

Factor in overcrowding--the worst in the nation, according to a just-released study--and the poor condition of many rentals, as well as the diminishing supply of homes deemed "affordable" and a lack of government support for renters, and you've got a recipe for trouble. And troubled is the way many of Oahu's renters feel when they look at their housing budget every month.

Allison's Story

Born and raised in Hawaii, Allison Tanaka lives in Honolulu. At 26, she has been a low-income renter all her fife. As a child growing up on Oahu, she and her family moved every time the rent went up. "We moved about 14 times since we sold our home, when I was 9. We lost expenses, stability. You give things away ... even my dog one time, when we had to move from a place with a yard to an apartment.

"There isn't a sense of community when you move a lot ... It's hard to study or even to plan anything."

Tanaka sees a common cultural sentiment among many of her neighbors: "No make shame." For many Island locals, there is a lot of fear and shame associated with drawing attention to your plight or raising a fuss about it, so many people just accept their problems--including the high cost of living.

Many of the low-income renters Tanaka works with today think twice about approaching their landlord for anything. For example, shortly after moving into their rental unit in the Leeward area, some tenants realized that the lock on their door was broken: The lock mechanism had been tampered with before they moved in. But the landlord, instead of fixing the lock, had just covered the problem with paint. Rather than approach the landlord to see about getting it fixed, the tenants push furniture against it from the inside every night to deter strangers from getting in.

"We're scared about it ... I mean, anybody could just walk in anytime they wanted," the tenants told Tanaka. But living like this, they think, is better than taking the risk of getting their door fixed, then being seen as "troublemakers" or having their rent raised. Tanaka has many other similar stories to recount.

Tear-Downs of Affordable Housing

Tanaka, a U.H. School of Public Health graduate, lives with her extended family in a small apartment. She can't afford to pay market-rate rent on her own (see our sidebar, "Terms and Conditions," page 9). The tight supply of affordable rentals exacerbates her situation. But starting in the 1960s, many affordable-housing units in Hawaii were closed down and demolished.

Waikiki used to contain quite a bit of affordable housing, as did the Kakaako area. Most of these rental units have been torn down and replaced with more-expensive housing projects and office towers. Sometimes, the sites simply lie vacant.

As recently as November and December of 1996, approximately 150 units in the Weinberg Villages transitional housing across Oahu were closed.

High Costs

Rental costs here are extremely high in comparison to typical incomes. For example, the median fair-market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Hawaii is $826, and the annual income required to afford that unit--that is, to pay no more than 30 percent of one's income for rent--is $33,040. The median fair-market rent is $973 for a two-bedroom unit, and the annual income required to afford that is $38,920. Low-income renter households are those that make less than 80 percent of the median income ($35,571). In Hawaii there are 87,000 low-income renter households.

Many low-income renters make minimum wages of $5.25 per hour. Yet the hourly wage needed to afford a one-bedroom unit is $15.88; just over three times what these minimum-wage earners make. The hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom unit is $18.71--almost four times the minimum wage.

The Worst Overcrowding in the Nation

Before any roommates and I moved together, two out of three of us were living in garages that ranged in price from $300 to $875 a month. The $300 garage was considered to be "a real steal!"

Other friends, desperate for privacy, live alone in run-down studio units for close to $1,000 a month. They hold on there until they can no longer afford to pay the price. Then they move in with roommates.

What is overcrowding? It's not the same as looking out your window to count 20 other houses or apartments directly around yours; this is actually "high density housing." Overcrowding means what it sounds like: Too many people crowded into one home.

According to census data released last month (measuring "crowdedness" in terms of homes having more than one person per room), Hawaii has the worst overcrowding of any state in the nation, at a rate of 15.9 percent. The only other state which comes close to this rate is California at 12.3 percent. The national average for overcrowded homes is 4.9 percent.

A 1992 study conducted by SMS Research Company, a local firm that conducts government and private-sector survey research, indicated that 23.2 percent of the total housing units in Honolulu were overcrowded. Other areas of the state were similar or worse off: In Maui, estimates are that almost two-thirds (62.8 percent) of the rentals are overcrowded.

Local studies like SMS' identify numerous causes of overcrowding, including a flat economy, the high cost of "affordable" market rate housing and the lack of affordable rental housing.

These conditions cause people to "double up" or stay with family or friends. However when these relationships are strained, the extra person is asked to leave; these "surplus" residents often have a difficult time finding another place to live.

The "Hidden Homeless"

As middle-income renters look for cheaper rental units, more people are pushed into fringe groups; they are the "hidden homless" or "at risk."

The hidden homeless are either those who share accommodations with other people, but who would prefer not to, or persons who depend on some kind of public assistance for shelter payments on a monthly basis. Approximately 8 percent of all people in Hawaii are hidden homeless. As a recent Hawaii Finance and Development Corporation report states, "But for the kindness of friends or relatives, or the good fortune of finding similarly deprived partners with whom to share housing, or having their housing paid by the government, these people would be homeless. They live in crowded conditions, doubled-up with other family members or sharing housing units with unrelated families."

Those who are at risk are three or fewer paychecks away from eviction.

The 1992 SMS study asked, "If you or the head of your household were to lose your job, how many rent or mortgage payments could you make before you became homeless?" Those who answered one, two or three payments are in the at-risk group; the report indicated that 350,000--28 percent of Hawaii's people--fall into this category.

Dr. Margaret Copi of the Kilihi-Palama Health Care for the Homeless Project sees this scenario on a daily basis. Often the most marginalized of persons--those with a mental illness, for example--are the first to be asked to leave an overcrowded home. They are also, unfortunately, the least able to cope without some kind of support system.

Copi poses this scenario: "You don't have the money to pay rent and pay a rent deposit. Maybe your wages won't cover your expenses, because all of a sudden an unexpected bill comes in, like say a medical bill or some other emergency cost, and you have to choose between paying that and paying your rent ... So you leave your place and go to stay with a friend or relative to meet one bill. Your support systems are maxed out due to these economic factors, and then you get thrown out of there, or asked to leave. The most marginal get pushed out on the street."

The Increasing Gap

High prices have pushed rental households in a downward direction: As rental prices rose and wages stagnated, housing that was originally intended to meet the economic capabilities of low-income renters is increasingly being taken up by the middle-income renters. Many of these middle-income renters were previously buying affordable homes.

State statistics indicate an increase in home ownership among upper-middle income groups from 1986 through 199?. However, at the same time we have an affordable-housing market that is described by a leading developer as "extremely soft," and an increase in the number of renters unable to afford adequate housing. Homelessness figures have also been increasing.

Fewer people can afford affordable housing, says a Schuler Homes representative (who asked that his name not be used). He explains, "Almost all new housing is connected to jobs, and we're in a negative job growth. Over the past two years, we have lost approximately 10,500 construction industry jobs ... These people all leave and go where the work is--somewhere on the Mainland. Then we have lost a lot of sugar industry jobs that were decent paying and had security. Many of these people have stayed and are forced into taking lower-paying jobs with less security. ...

"The quality of jobs is decreasing, and the pay is decreasing as well. If you are going to buy a house, that's a long-term commitment, and many people just don't have the confidence in the future to do that. ... If you don't feel confident, you rent... But negative job growth affects those at the bottom end of the scale before it does those at the upper end, and all of this has affected affordable housing here."

A study by the Low-Income Housing Information Service in Washington tracked the amount of dollars given out by the Federal government for tax deductions and direct subsidies. The study reports, "the lion's share goes to wealthy homeowners, through the mortgage interest and property tax deductions and the exclusion of capital gain taxes on property sales. ... The vast majority of middle and low income homeowners and renters get little or no help from the federal government to pay their housing costs."

In fact, the Feds spend about four times as much on housing deductions as on low-income housing; most of these tax breaks--more than two-thirds--go to families with incomes above $75,000.

So, there is a growing gap between those on the lower end of the economic scale and those on the upper end, as we see growth in those groups who are homeless or are unable to afford market-rate rent, and growth in ownership of middle- and higher-end homes here. In other words, we are seeing an increasing gap between those with money to buy and those incapable of renting even average-priced units.

Sub-standard Rental Housing Stock

Remember the story of the door lock that fell apart? That's just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the rental units in Hawaii are run-down.

Sixty-seven percent of the housing stock in Honolulu is more than 20 years old, is sib-standard in quality, and will soon be in need of replacement, according to an SMS Research study. And 1990 census data indicates that statewide, 65.6 percent of low-income renter households--approximately 106,655--reported that there is some problem with their housing. Renters consider it a "problem" if their homes cost more than 30 percent of their income, are overcrowded, or lack a kitchen or full bathroom.

These numbers may be conservative estimates, given that many renters, like those mentioned above, do not want to run the risk of complaining about their units.

The situation recently came to the attention of council member Andy Mirikitani, who exposed the plight of tenants who lived in an "uninhabitable" apartment building, "in the heart of the middle-income district." Mirikitani's investigation into the Makiki building led him to assert, "We must find out why families and children have been allowed to live in these horrible conditions."

Certainly a large part of the reason why tenants continue to live in these sub-standard conditions is that units in better condition are increasingly out of their reach. As a result of the attention to the run-down Makiki property, the Building Department is recommending to the Honolulu City Council that it give the City authority to assess civil fines under the Housing Code against landlords who operate sub-standard rental buildings. No one knows, however, how much of the cost of updating sub-standard units will simply be passed on to tenants.

Advocating for a Solution

A visit to the offices of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, one non-profit that serves low-income renters, underscores the plight of many Hawaii tenants. AHHA is housed just off traffic-congested Vineyard Boulevard, in an old frame building in the Palama Settlement. The building houses a cluster of social-service offices; each is old and stark, with mis-matched furniture. Computers are scarce; so is money.

To reach AHHA's office on the second floor, I walk down a long, dark, bare, white hallway with old linoleum that cracks and squeaks under every step. Along the hallway are doors, each with hand-made signs in their mottled glass windows. I knock on the door in front of me and enter.

Inside is an office similar to the others I stumbled across, but smaller. AHHA is a statewide non-profit coalition that focuses on the promotion of housing for people who have low incomes, special housing needs, or who are homeless or near-homeless.

The organization reflects the difficulties faced by many low-income renters. It exists on a number of small grants from local and mainland foundations, as well as from memberships, donations, and some fund-raisers.

AHHA is often run on the full-time work of just one person, executive director Kathleen Hasegawa, who is pleased to have continual help this year from four others. There are two part-time volunteers (one an intern from the University of Hawaii Social Work Department, the other a retired director of the social services administration for Hawaii). Then there are two full-time Americorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) workers. One, Cheryl Remata, is the coordinator for the Campaign for Housing Homeless People, and the other is Allison Tanaka. Tanaka is the coordinator of the Campaign for Rental Housing.

The Campaign for Rental Housing

AHHA formed the Campaign for Rental Housing in 1994. Originally comprised of bankers, real estate agents, and social service agency representatives, today's campaign is more grass-roots; there are now tenants involved, as well as representatives of various community organizations. The advocacy group was key in getting the state to start a Rental Housing Trust Fund in 1992, by drawing on conveyance taxes on housing sales. Housing trust funds such as these have emerged all over the nation since the time of Federal cutbacks beginning in the 1980s.

Campaign members would like to convince the state to dedicate additional monies to the Rental Housing Trust Fund. They argue that dedicated funding would prove state government is committed to lessening the rental-housing burden.

The Rental Housing Trust Fund, managed by an appointed commission, awards grants and loans to rental developers of housing for low-income people. The rules for the developers, many of them non-profit organizations, are that at least 50 percent of the units built must be for renters whose incomes are 60 percent or below the median renter's income of $35,571.

Since its inception in 1992, the state has committed to provide partial funds for the development of over 1,000 affordable rental units; it has awarded over $21 million through the fund. Some projects that have benefited from Rental Housing Trust Fund Commission awards are: Kekuilani Courts family housing in Kapolei (80 units); Kulana Hale housing for elderly persons in Makiki (176); Hawaii Housing Autilority's individual and family units in Kapolei (56); and Hale Mohalu's housing in Pearl City (210).

Of the trust-fund money, a full $15 million was initially awarded in 1992, and the fund has only received about $1 million a year since then. Because of budgeting, planning and building timeliness however, only 300 units have actually been built to date. More are on the way.

A few days ago, Tanaka called. "There are several important bills in the legislature related to housing. ... I'm encouraging people to testify about them. I've orgtnized about a hundred people from various sectors ... some unions, real estate agents, about 12 tenants, some from neighbor islands, to testify and I've got an outline of how people can give their testimony." There is energy and excitement in her voice.

Campaign members and AHHA supporters would like the state to recognize the Rental Housing Trust Fund as the heart of the state's housing policy, because roughly half of Hawaii's population are renters. Many of them find the conditions in which they live worsening and their ability to meet their rent increasingly difficult.

What's to Come?

On Feb. 7, an announcement in the Legislature indicated that Gov. Ben Cayetano is becoming increasingly aware of the lack of focus on the concerns of Hawaii renters as part of the State's housing plans.

Cayetano has requested a transfer of $10 million a year for each of the next two years in general obligation bonds to the Rental Housing Trust Fund. Although this is not a dedicated funding source, this gesture does indicate his concern for the rental-housing crisis in Hawaii.

The request still has to be supported by legislators from the House Finance and Senate Ways and Means committees. There is a possibility that state support won't come through. Meanwhile, housing advocates in Hawaii continue to work-- and Hawaii's renters continue to worry.

Median Fair Market Rent ($/mo) Terms and Conditions

The poverty level is "an income level judged inadequate to provide a family or individual with the essentials of life."

In Hawaii, the poverty thresholds (or basic required annual income) for one, two, three and four-person households are approximately $8,910, $11,920, $14,930 and $17,940.

Affordable housing is defined as consuming no more than 30 percent of a household's income. (There are shortcomings with this definition, because in general, those with higher incomes pay smaller proportions for housing and have more left over for other basics, like food, utilities and medical care).

Fair Market Rent is established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for rentals in decent condition. The figures "represent the 40th percentile in rent levels, which means that approximately 40 percent of all units, excluding those newly constructed or substantially rehabilitated, rent for less than that amount, and approximately 60 percent rent for more."

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